Kitchens became unsafe spaces early on in Neil’s childhood, littered with knives and shadowed by his father’s rage. There were too many openings, too many weapons, too many ways to get hurt.
The last time Neil had wandered into the Baltimore mansion’s kitchen was after being sent to bed without dinner, one of the first few nights of many. He remembers the uncomfortable pain of hunger competing with his fear of being caught by his father, eventually winning out with his rationalization that he’s quiet and quick enough to remain undetected. He was proven right, as his father had no idea he was hiding in the corners of the kitchen as he stabbed one of the maids and decapitated her. He didn’t feel very hungry, after that.
After Baltimore, after the FBI and the police and the trials and the death, his mother continued to carry on the tradition of her husband of instilling fear into his bones. Her psyche deteriorated quickly, but silently. Everyday she was a little more paranoid, a little more cautious, a little more protective. Everyday just a little bit more, until a little became too much and Neil felt like he was seven years old again, stitching his own wounds and biting his tongue as his mother gripped his hair hard and told him to be quiet.
“Abram!” She hissed out, after slapping the cup in his hands to the ground, glass and hot tea spilling over the floor and down his legs, “Don’t be stupid! That could’ve been poisoned, could have killed you! Don’t put anything in your mouth that I haven't told you was safe, do you understand?”
It didn’t seem to matter to her that they were in their own home, in a town far away from his father’s grave and the names they once had called themselves. It didn’t seem to matter to her that the tea was their own, packaged and with an unbroken seal until a few moments before. Years of torture and fear made his mother into something else, something different, a creature of habit out of place in a world no longer recognizable.
Nonetheless, Neil listened and followed and obeyed, as he too was a creature of habit. He stayed inside, and didn’t speak to others, and kept his head down, and dyed his hair, and didn’t eat unless told. Hunger pains became everyday pains became normal. Every once in awhile dizzy spells and unconsciousness would creep up on him and leave him sore and weak, but even still he didn’t disobey. He did not question his mother, the one who taught him how to survive and the one who made sure he learned.
His uncle came to visit in the spring and took his mother away by the fall. They argued that entire summer over Neil’s wellbeing and his mother’s fading health. The first time his uncle tentatively suggested that Neil attend public school over homeschool ended in a screaming match and plates and glasses being shattered. Every once in awhile his uncle would glance at his waist and frown, poking at where ribs made their way to the edge of his flesh, and Neil would flinch and back away and Stuart would frown some more and push food onto his plate, causing a chain reaction of his mother’s fury and his uncle’s concern and a growing pit in his stomach.
“For fucks sakes, Mary, you’re killing the boy!” Stuart had said once after dinner. Neil sat on the stairwell, watching through the bars to hear what was being said. Neil’s mother had gone stiff, her fists curling in fury and her body tensing for a fight.
“And who the hell are you to say how I raise my son?! Where were you when they cut him out of me, when that bastard first hit him, when I was the only one keeping him from falling apart? I gave birth to him, I raised him, I kept him alive. You have no right to-”
“He doesn’t speak,” Stuart hissed out, “I’ve been here for three months and he hasn’t said a word. And don’t you think I haven’t noticed how you stop him from eating, what the hell, he’s skin and bone, what the fuck have you been doing to that poor child?” Stuart closed his eyes and took a breath, obviously holding himself back.
Neil’s mother’s face had gone red, nothing short of absolute outrage, and even though Neil wasn’t anywhere near her, he flinched back instinctively.
“How- How dare you-”
“Jesus Christ, just stop, Mary.” Stuart said, sounding tired. “You need help, truly. He’s been dead for two years and you still act like he’ll come walking through that door at any moment.”
“You don’t know what it was like! You weren’t there for us! You weren’t there for me!”
That was when his mother started to cry. Neil had stiffened, and made his way back to his room, shocked by the amount of emotion his mother displayed.
A month later and his mother was forced into a psychiatric hospital per her brother’s request. Neil had expected her to fight him on it to the end, to be dragged kicking and screaming, but after their last argument something had broken in his mother, something that drained all the fight she had left in her, and when the time came she left with only a look of detachment and a hollow glance in Nel’s direction.
Things changed after that. His uncle enrolled him in public classes and therapy alike, despite Neil’s angry glares and new habit of slamming doors. Neil hadn’t understood at the time why his uncle had taken control as he did, locking his mother up and forcing Neil out into a world he didn’t understand.
And now, as Neil stands in front of the therapist’s building, he finds that he still doesn’t understand the point of this at all.
Public school was, in gentle terms, a mess. Neil was behind in all of the subjects besides math and he still didn’t feel comfortable enough to speak to others, leaving teachers frustrated and classmates annoyed at best and volatile at worst. Shoves became a common occurrence in the halls, along with ugly words and names associated with his lack of communication. Neil often came home with a pile of teacher’s notes and a black eye. He tried to keep his head down and away from his peers, but even without the ability to talk he seems unable to not attract trouble.
Jack Sheer pushes him down the stairs hard. It’s only four steps, not really anything that could cause vital damage, though it does scatter his books and papers across the hall. Neil let’s out a sigh as Jack walks to him, apparently not done with being an asshole.
“Hey Josten! I heard you were checking out my girl! Now what would a dumb piece of shit like you be doing something like that, huh? Care to say why?”
‘Jack’s girl’ was, simply put, a loud bitch who thought making fun of other girls was a creative way of becoming popular. For a moment, Neil contemplated breaking his promise to his mother to say so, but eventually came to the conclusion that Jack wasn’t worth that. Instead, he looked up at Jack with the best dead stare he could muster, hoping it conveys how idiotic he thinks that accusation is.
“That it, huh? Not even a word? God, are you really so stupid that you don’t even know how to talk? What a waste of space-”
“Hey!” Neil turns his head around to see Matt Boyd, vice captain of the football team coming over, an angry look on his face. For a second Neil thinks he’s going to join in on Jack’s torment, but the second he makes it over he gets right up in Jack’s face and shoves him backwards. “Go be a douchebag somewhere else Sheer, or I’ll have coach bench you for the next three games.”
“Oh, fuck you, Boyd, you can’t do that, I wasn’t even doing anything!” Jack says, but he makes no move to retaliate.
“I can and I will, go to class, Sheer, before I tell coach that your pushing disabled kids down stairs.”
“God, you freaks can have each other, I’m gone.” Jack says, with the wobble of someone who’s trying to hold their ground and losing.
“Hey, you alright?” Matt says, anger gone and only concern in its wake. Neil nods hesitantly, and feels another wave of shock as Matt helps him pick up his things. “Jack’s an asshole, I don’t know where he gets off acting like he’s superior when can’t even make it to first line. You shouldn’t have to deal with that bullshit, man. If Jack or anyone gives you shit you can come to me okay?” Matt stops in his tangent to look at Neil sincerely, and Neil nods automatically even though there’s no way in hell he’s telling Matt about everyone else who bullies him.
“I’m Matt by the way, you’re Neil right?” He waits long enough for a confirmation and grins. “Nice to meet you. Hey want to sit with me and my friends at lunch? Promise not all jocks are like Jack.”
Neil stares at him like he grew a second head, and thinks if he ever breaks his promise, Matt wouldn’t be a bad way to start.
“If you don’t talk to me Neil, I can’t help you.” His therapist says, the words becoming commonplace in offices like this. He’s gone through five therapists so far, and none can seem to wade through his astronomical amount of problems, mostly because they can’t get past the first: he doesn’t speak.
He’s not even sure what it is at this point. Some think it’s for attention, others say it’s the trauma, and some think it’s a different mental disorder all together.
His therapist, soon to be ex therapist, recommends group therapy as she explains to his uncle why she can no longer help his nephew. The idea is that hearing other kids with similar stories will make him more comfortable with his own, maybe even to the point of sharing it.
That’s how he got here sitting at a table in a support group for fucked up kids. Neil sits there in silence, even when the counselor asks him for his name. He sits there with his head down and his leg bouncing, wondering if all the meetings were going to be this painful.
Neil makes it to snack break without slamming his head into the table but it’s only just. Neil can feel and hear the others move to grab food and go to the bathroom. The counselor says something that was probably aimed at him but he ignores her and she let’s it go fairly quickly.
“What’s your damage?” The voice is close enough and low enough to make Neil jump whipping his head to look at the blond kid sitting next to him. He seems bored and apathetic, slouched down in his chair and staring, chewing on a gusher. Neil gives him a blank look in return but as the other kid makes no moves to back down he sighs and motions at his throat.
He tilts his head in question, before clarity reaches his eyes. “Can’t speak, or won’t speak?”
Neil just shrugs, since it’s not like he can really answer anyway.
The kid stares for another moment then huffs, “Boring.” And shoves another gusher into his mouth, with obvious lost interest.
Neil finds himself slightly offended, glaring at him even though the other has taken to looking in the opposite direction.
The session resumes without anymore commentary from the blond kid, though Neil is more aware of him now. He still sits there in silence but starts listening to the others.
There’s a girl across from him that’s far too young to be at this kind of meeting. Her name is Malia and she can’t be older than ten and she speaks with a stutter. She likes wolves and she doesn’t want to see her father at his upcoming trial. Neil understands that kind of pain on a level he wishes he didn’t and can’t really stomach looking at her after.
The girl next to her has pastel tips and a cross around her neck and Neil has the sudden urge to make a run for the door. He can’t put his finger on it, she speaks calmly and sincerely, with light smiles and gentle movements of her hands, but Neil can’t shake the thought that she’s dangerous. Her eyes meet his during her talk of her week and Neil shudders as an image of Lola flashes in his mind.
“-and Andrew, what about you, how was your week?”
Neil was so focused on Renee that he didn’t realize the group had gone full circle until the kid next to him looks pointedly at the counselor before taking this moment to open another packet of gushers and shoving them into his mouth. He make a face and hand motion as if to convey that he can’t speak and Neil snorts despite himself.
The counselor sighs, obviously used to Andrew’s antics, and as she raps up the meeting Neil and Andrew share a look of solidarity and for once Neil doesn’t hate the idea of coming back.
“Goddamnit, Nathaniel!” Neil flinches at both his birth name and his uncle’s tone. His uncle at least has the decency to look apologetic but Neil’s trauma doesn’t seem to be enough to get him out of this conversation today.
“Alright, I shouldn’t have raised my voice like that, but for fuck’s sake Abram, you’re a hundred and five pounds boy!” Stuart says, pointing at the scale for emphasis. To be fair, Neil hadn’t realized it was this bad. He probably should have figured, with his bones starting to be seen through his skin and his fainting spells increasing, but he hadn’t really put much thought into either.
“Come on, you need to eat, Abram.” Stuart says with a sigh.
Along with his weight, Neil didn’t really realize his aversion to food before his uncle started shoving it in his direction. After a few bites of anything he starts to feel nauseous and queasy, unable to finish anything with the sickness in his gut.
His uncle makes him an appointment with a nutritionist who gives him a list of daily requirements and a journal to update his eating habits and weight gain. The doctor took Stuart to the side and told him that if Neil drops anymore pounds by the next visit it might do him good to be hospitalized.
Maybe he should be hospitalized, Neil thinks later that night after throwing the journal into a nearby wall. He’s his parents son after all, the one of a murderer and the one of a victim. Maybe his problems are too broken to fix.
Neil wasn’t planning on sitting with Matt more than once out of polite courtesy, but Matt and his friends attach to him with a vice grip of kindness he can't seem to shake.
Dan is under the impression that Neil needs to be protected and that is now her job in life, and Matt seems to share that responsibility. Neil feels slightly off put by being adopted by two people that are the same age as him but the attention is also kind of nice so he lets them do as they please.
Kevin talks only about exy and nothing else. It’s apparently some obscure new sport that his mother had a hand in crafting and Kevin has taken it upon himself to spread the good word of exy. Neil, not really being able to stop him, lets him ramble about it without much protest. If Neil is being honest with himself, though he rarely is, he’d say the game actually sounded pretty cool. Somehow, through telekinesis or other manners, Kevin picked up on Neil’s interest and has since lightly bullied him into giving it a shot.
Allison confuses Neil, mostly because she seems obsessed with his clothes and hair and seems personally offended that he isn’t.
“Alright Bambi, I love you, but if I keep looking at that disaster dye job for one more day I’m shaving it off myself. Come on, we’re leaving.” Allison says, opening the side to her car as she does.
Neil stares hopelessly at her and sighs, relenting to her force and getting in the car.
Allison smiles in triumph, and spends the ride over to the hairdressers shit talking her boyfriend.
Neil doesn’t really understand why she stays with him if he’s such an asshole, and even goes as far as to type out a note with the question on his phone.
Allison reads it and shrugs. “I guess that’s love. Hating the person’s guts but at the same time missing them when they’re gone.” Neil nods like he has any idea what that means and gets out at the place Allison stopped at.
“How do you feel about going natural?” Allison says, and Neil immediately tenses. His roots have been peeking out for the last few weeks, a stark red contrasting against the dull brown he dyed it. He hasn’t made plans at redying it but the thought of commiting to his natural color makes his chest tighten and his head spin.
Allison sees the look on his face and frowns. “Neil?”
Neil takes a breath and closes his eyes and counts to ten. One of his therapists suggested it after accidentally sending him into a panic attack with a mention of his father. Neil tries to think clearly, think if he’s ready to face this part of himself. After a few moments and Allison’s growing concern, he nods sharply, and looks up at her to find she’s smiling softly at him
“I don’t like brown.” Andrew says. He and Neil have taken to waiting outside after sessions and smoking cigarettes as they wait for their respective rides. Most of the time it’s in silence, as Andrew doesn’t talk much and Neil doesn’t talk at all. Every once in awhile Andrew will state something, or ask a question, or complain about something miniscule in his life. Neil, surprisingly, doesn’t hate these interactions, and has no problem listening or sitting in silence in exchange for a cigarette.
Neil makes a face of confusion, and Andrew knows him well enough to understand that he’s asking for him to elaborate.
Andrew points to his hair, “You look slightly less awful now.”
Neil rolls his eyes and flips Andrew off, even though the comment settles something that’s been stirring inside himself ever since he let Allison change his hair.
Andrew snorts, then drums his fingers against his thigh. Most of the time Andrew is still and reserved, but sometimes he gets antsy, or at least, as antsy as Andrew can get. It usually starts like this, him fiddling with his fingers or scoffing his shoes with periodic bouts of talking like he can’t contain himself but he’s trying. Neil takes a moment to be worried with how well he’s gotten to know Andrew with only a few meetings, but pushes down his anxiety along with his mother’s voice.
“We should play a game.” Andrew says, and Neil raises an eyebrow. “How about this, I say something about you, and you shake your head if it’s true or not.”
Neil hums, something he picked up from Allison, and checks the time. It’s been ten minutes since the meeting ended, meaning Andrew’s here for ten more when his mom gets off from work and Neil’s here for five minutes after that when Stuart finally gets here with an arrangement of apologies. Neil nods, curious despite himself and bored besides that.
“You like fruit, but you hate sugar.” Neil snorts, but nods. Andrew tried to offer him a donut at snack break the other meeting and Neil had made a face. Andrew must have notices that Neil only brought fruit, though that was slightly influenced by his uncle and his nutritionist.
“You don’t have any fashion sense, whatsoever.” Neil glares at him for that, not bothering to respond, even when Andrew makes a slight smirk.
“You have a bad relationship with your father.” Neil stills, taken aback by the swift change in theme. Neil pauses for another moment, long enough that Andrew almost takes it back, before nodding slowly, taking a drag of his forgotten cigarette after.
“You-” Neil shakes his head, signalling that he didn’t want to play anymore.
Andrew stops, but nods. “You could do the same for me if you want. Three for three.”
Neil thinks on this, but eventually takes out his phone and types up his statements.
After a moment he passes the phone over to Andrew, who reads it quickly.
“‘You think of yourself as a goth.’” Andrew reads out loud. “Fuck you, Josten.”
Neil snickers. “You’re not funny. ‘You’re friends with Renee.’ It’s less friendship and more understanding. She’s also one of the least annoying people here.” Neil makes a face to say he doesn’t agree but Andrew just shrugs.
“‘You like coming to group even though you don’t participate.’” Andrew seems to weigh this, before nodding, “Sometimes it helps, to know that others can get through hell. Makes it look easier.”
Neil stares at him, seeing him a little differently. Andrew gives back his phone and leaves soon after, throwing up a salute as he gets into his mother’s car. Neil waves back, and wonders when he got so invested in Andrew.
“Getting better, kiddo.” His uncle says with a smile. The scale reads a hundred and fifteen, a slow but needed improvement.
Neil stares at the scale, and wishes he felt better about it. Eating has been hard, and knowing that he's still got a ways to go causes a sickness in his gut. Even still, he hasn’t fainted in a while and he feels more awake then he has in months. Small improvements are still improvements, after all.
“Are you shitting me.” Andrew says, deadpan. “Exy. Really.”
Neil shrugs sheepishly, feeling a little defensive of his new found hobby.
It’s fun. Neil types out, and Andrew snorts. “Yeah, and so is stabbing my face with a fork.”
Have you even ever played?
Andrew rolls his shoulders self consciously and shrugs. “Maybe.”
Neil instantly perks up, Are you good?
“Oh god, you're one of those obsessive jocks.” Neil flips him off and figures he can translate that one for himself.
Andrew lets a small grin slip out before it’s gone and he’s blankly staring into the parking lot once more. “That woman is never on time for anything.”
Neil tilts his head curiously and types out, Your mom?
Andrew glances at the phone and nods. “She’s my foster mother, technically.”
You're a foster kid.
“Great deduction skills there, Josten.” Andrew says with a roll of his eyes.
Can I ask a question? You can too if you want, truth for a truth.
Andrew stares at the screen for awhile, before shrugging and nodding. “Alright.”
You said you had a long lost twin before, did you get separated in foster care?
Andrew laughs then, and it isn’t a pleasant sound. “No. My darling biological mother didn’t want two kids so she got rid of me, and kept him.”
Neil frowns, That’s shit.
“Yeah, I’m aware.” Andrew takes a drag of his cigarette, “It’s better, now. She’s dead and Bee is a better mother then she could ever be.” Andrew clenches and unclenches his fists like he wants to punch something, but relaxes his hands after a moment.
“My turn,” He says as he looks over at Neil, “If you hate group so much, why do you keep coming back?”
It wasn’t the question Neil expected but he shrugs and types out a response nonetheless, My uncle’s forcing me. He thinks if he pushes me on enough psychiatrists one of them will eventually fix me.
“That’s stupid,” Andrew says bluntly, “You’re not broken Neil.”
Neil shifts uncomfortably, Tell that to my teachers and classmates. “Fuck them,” Andrew says harshly, “What do they know about you?”
Neil remains quiet.
“Exactly. No one’s broken, Neil, just,” Andrew shrugs, “Bent.”
His mother calls on a saturday evening. Neil can’t make himself speak, even for her, especially for her. Her voice goes from commanding to desperate to angry, yelling at him old insults and messages that leave him shaking and wanting to crawl out of his skin. His uncle grabs the phone out of his grasp soon after and Neil runs to his room, and doesn’t come out for the rest of the night.
There’s laughter coming from the basement.
Neil doesn’t want to go to the basement.
Screams echo throughout the halls, followed by the sounds of flesh being split and choked cries of pain. Neil presses his back to a wall and covers his ears with his hands, as if closing his eyes would make the atrocities stop.
There’s a hard grip on his shoulder and manic voices in his ears and he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want to-
Neil wakes up gasping for air and clenching his chest. The memory of death and the smell of blood lingering even after it’s over, suffocating him and leaving him wheezing with fear. He tries to relax and count to ten but can’t get past the taste of bile on his tongue and the feeling of knives on his skin. Nothing seems to be working and he can’t calm down and an irrational part of him wishes his mother was here if only to snap him out of it. He scrambles for his phone and drops it twice, his hands shaking too much to be of use. His vision wavers over the screen, and he scrolls through his contacts as if its longer than five people.
He almost wants to call Andrew, but he doesn’t have his number and also doesn’t have a good excuse for calling at three in the morning while having a panic attack.
His finger hovers over Matt’s name before hitting Allison’s in a last minute decision and he breathes out harshly and unevenly as the tone dials. If he was a little bit more there and conscious of his actions he would hang up then and there and bury himself under his covers until his breathing evened. But he wasn’t and the only thing keeping him from going under at the moment is the rhythmic rings of the phone.
He shocks himself when the ringing stops, a sharp gasp followed by, “For fucks sakes it fucking three am who’s -Josten? Is that you?”
Neil embarrassingly lets out a choked sob then and forgets why he thought this was a good idea in the first place.
“Neil? Hey, are you okay? Where are you, I’ll pick you up, come on, text me if you have to.”
Neil’s hands tremble more and he nearly drops his phone again, shaking hard and stuttering out a breath, “I-” He coughs, his voice raspy with disuse and his tongue heavy in his mouth, “I’m not-” Neil stops, biting his bottom lip hard.
“You’re okay Neil, it’s okay, tell me where you are, alright?”
“I’m- home.” Neil stammers out.
“Okay, I’m on my way. Is there anything I need to know, are you hurt, alone, what?”
Neil shakes his head, “I-I’m fine just- just stay on the line please?”
“Of course, Neil, you’re my friend.”
Allison shows up on his doorstep a little passed three twenty in the morning wearing sweatpants and no makeup. She takes one look at him and says, “Oh, Bambi.” And pulls him into a hug. It’s not the most comfortable thing, Neil stiffens and doesn’t know what to do with his arms but it’s warm and it doesn’t hurt. She pulls away and follows him to the living room and sits down with him.
His breathing has slowed down by now but he’s still shaking and Allison gives him a hand to clutch onto.
“I’m sorry,” Neil says quietly. “I shouldn’t have woken you up I just kind of panicked.”
“Hey, don’t you dare apologise, okay? You’re having a panic attack or were or whatever, that’s not your fault. And obviously I’m here for you, stupid.” She says.
Neil gives her a wobbly smile before letting it fall.
“I’m really fucked up.” He says and Allison snorts.
“Yeah, no shit Neil.”
“Will you just- will you stay?” Neil says, closing his eyes with redding cheeks.
“Of course, whatever you need, kid.” She says with a smile. “I got your back.”
Matt hasn’t stopped talking long enough for Neil to say anything. Usually that’s not a problem, as Neil usually doesn’t say anything, but after Allison, Neil suddenly finds his mutism to be dishonest to his friends.
“-and I told Jack what you told me about him being a prick who takes out his mommy issues on others and dude, he was livid you should’ve seen-”
“Since when did you start picking fights with Sheer?” Dan interrupts, raising a brow as she bites into an apple.
“Since Neil here came up with so much back talking gold! He can’t say it to Jack and someone has to-”
“Actually,” Neil says quietly, “I think I got it.”
Matt and Dan stare at him wide eyed with dropped mouths while Kevin just looks annoyingly confused. Matt’s the first to break the tension with,
“Holy shit, that was your voice!”
Dan recovers enough to smile, “Damn Neil, way to shock a girl.”
“Does this mean we can finally use verbal cues during practice?” Kevin says, and instantly gets hit in his arm.
“Just so everyone knows,” Allison declares, “He talked to me first.”
Neil chews on his bottom lip, glancing over at Andrew then glancing down. Apparently it’s not subtle because Andrew huffs out a second later and glares.
“My mom called me yesterday.” Neil says, and Andrew falls quiet, eyes wide as Neil speaks. “She wants me to visit her.”
Andrew waits for a moment, obviously coming to terms with Neil’s newfound voice, before saying, “Do you want to?”
“I-” Neil takes a shaky breath, “I don’t know. She used to be the only person I trusted and now. Now she terrifies me.”
“Then don’t go.” Andrew says bluntly.
Neil shakes his head, “I can’t just-”
“If she hurt you then she isn’t worth your time. Plain and simple.”
“It’s not always simple. She was just trying to keep me safe.”
Andrew raises an eyebrow, “Yeah, she seems to be doing a great job.”
“She was just trying to keep me safe.” Neil says again, almost like a mantra.
“Neil look at me.” Andrew says sternly and he reluctantly does. “Did she hurt you?”
“She was just-”
“That wasn’t the question. Did she hurt you?”
Neil stays silent for a moment. “Yes.”
“Then it doesn’t matter what her reasons were.”
Neil falls silent fiddling with his cigarette and staring out into the parking lot. "I don’t think I want to see her.”
“There’s your answer then.” Andrew says, taking another drag. A few moments later Andrew blows out a puff of smoke. “I can’t believe the first thing you say to me is about your mother issues.”
Neil laughs, “Fuck you.”
“Go on a date with me.”
“Jesus fucking christ-”
“Remember when you couldn’t speak? I missed that.”
“You’re such a fucking asshole.”
“Is that a no?”
“If you take me to a candy store on the first date I’m leaving you.”
“Well I’m sure as shit not taking you to an exy game.”
“Well that’s just a deal breaker.” Neil says seriously.
“Neil,” Andrew says, “Yes or no?” A hopeful, fragile, thing worms its way into his chest and Neil grins.